A number of months ago, I asked John DeMarco, the owner of our local antiquarian book store Lyrical Ballad, to keep an eye out for a first edition Peterson Field Guide for me. Well, lo and behold, last week he and his wife Jan came in to the store and had a surprise for me: a first edition Field Guide to the Birds by Roger Tory Peterson.
With a little research on the Roger Tory Peterson Institute website, I found that there were actually four printings of the first edition. Although the book ended up revolutionizing the birding hobby, when it was first published in 1934, only 2,000 copies were initially printed. But those 2,000 sold out in just two weeks! Not surprisingly, when a copy of one of those first 2,000 is sold today, it can go for thousands of dollars.
Over the next five years after the first printing, three additional printings of the first edition were done, each with some minor changes and corrections that help make them identifiable. The printings are referred to as "states", with the first 2,000 copies being the first state. The most obvious way to identify a first edition, first state is the 1934 publication date on the title page.
Other identifying features of the first state are tissue guards over the four color plates and what has been called "dirty" grey plumage on the illustrations of the Whistling Swan and white egrets. Also, in the index, the nickname for the American Bittern was misspelled "bob-pumper" instead of "bog-pumper".
A first edition, second state of 3,000 copies was sent quickly to press after the initial 2,000 sold out. Changes were minor in the second state, with only the misspelling of "bog-pumper" being corrected. And on the second and all future first edition printings, there is no date on the title page. The dirty plumage and the color plate tissue guards are still present in second state copies.
The third state has tissue guards but the "dirty" plumage is gone with the swan and egrets showing clean white plumage. A fourth state book is identified by the elimination of the tissue guards. It has not been determined how many third and fourth states were printed.
The Whistling Swan and white egrets in my copy are white, not what I would call "dirty" as far as I can tell (having never seen a copy with "dirty" plumage). And it DOES have tissue guards so the best I can tell, I am the lucky owner of a First Edition, Third State.
The guide is nowhere near pristine condition. It has 2 previous owners' names in it and some trip lists pencilled on the back inside cover. The back cover is a little loose from the binding and a little stained as well. It also does not have a dust jacket.
But holding the guide regardless of its condition is like holding a little bit of history. I've held in my hands books older than this 75-year old volume, so it's not just the age of the book that thrills me. It is how this guide changed history. To put the book's impact in perspective, Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds was included in the 1996 New York Public Library's Books of the Century, alongside Einstein's The Meaning of Relativity and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Peterson's new bird guide helped bring birding to the masses by helping everyday folks identify birds in the field and not just in hand.
From the book's Preface:
"..the one thing we wished for - a 'boiling down,' or simplification, of things so that any bird could be readily and surely told from all the others at a glance or at a distance - that, except fragmentarily, we were unable to find."
The contents of the book are a joy to peruse. The color plates are beautiful, maybe even more so because there are only four of them. The arrows pointing out key field marks are present and have become a feature of all Peterson guides. House Finches are absent since they had not yet been released in the east by an unscrupulous pet store owner. And again showing its age, it contains a culturally-incorrect slang term for the cormorant (which remained thoughout the 2nd edition printings but was removed for the 3rd edition in 1947).
My first bird guide was a Peterson Field Guide, Fourth Edition, that I bought for a trip to Crane Creek State Park (adjacent to Magee Marsh in Ohio), my first-ever birding trip. I used it for over 20 years! Can you believe that range maps didn't appear in the guide until the fourth edition?
I've also collected two 1947 Third Edition copies, one with a dust cover, albeit a ratty one. The third edition was the first to feature the now-familiar bird silhouettes in the front and rear of the book.
We have three copies of the Fifth Edition, two of which we purchased at nature centers while on vacation (how do bird store owners find themselves without a field guide??) Two of these copies travel in our cars and the third sits next to a newer Sixth Edition in a convenient place on a bookshelf, within armreach of where I work.
I find that my Peterson Guide is the first identification guide I often reach for, before the Stokes or Sibley guides, and before the Kaufman or Crossley guides.
But when you think about it, that's only fitting, since it was that first $2.75 guide by a young Roger Tory Peterson that opened the door and set the standard for all the field guides that followed.